KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Jeremy Pruitt didn’t waste words or leave doubt about his intentions as Tennessee’s new football coach.
“We want to be a big, fast, dominating, aggressive, relentless football team that nobody in the SEC wants to play,” said Pruitt, introduced Thursday night at Neyland Stadium by Vols’ College Football Hall of Fame coach and current AD Phillip Fulmer.
“Can we get there? I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think we could get there.”
Fulmer certainly wouldn’t have hired the 43-year-old Pruitt away from Alabama coach Nick Saban if he didn’t feel the same about the four-time national championship defensive coordinator.
“His energy and his enthusiasm, his background and his intensity all appealed to me greatly,” said Fulmer, who narrowed the search to Pruitt, former Tennessee player and current Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele and Georgia defensive coordinator Mel Tucker.
“You can see and feel his passion for what he does, and he cares about young people.”
Pruitt grew up the son of a successful high school football coach before playing at Middle Tennessee and transferring to Alabama, where he played for College Football Hall of Fame coach Gene Stallings.
Stallings told SEC Country on Thursday that he has advised Pruitt to lean on Fulmer for advice, and to get started quickly on building relationships with head coaches.
Fulmer can help him both respects, long regarded as one of the top recruiters in the nation while building one of the most consistency football programs win the nation.
Indeed, Fulmer, Paul “Bear” Bryant and Steve Spurrier are the only coaches in SEC history to have 12 consecutive seasons of 8 wins or more.
Tennessee was on the wrong side of football history this season, however, losing 8 games and going winless in the SEC for the first time in history, leading to the ouster of Butch Jones.
Then-AD John Currie officially began the coaching search on Nov. 12, but a failed attempt to finalize the hiring of Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano was followed by multiple high-profile rejections.
Currie, in his desperation to hand a head coach with the start of the early signing period fast approaching (Dec. 20), made an unauthorized trip to Los Angeles to meet with Mike Leach and was consequently suspended and replaced.
Fulmer, in five days, zeroed in on Pruitt and the 59-year-old Steele, ultimately going with the younger, more energized option.
“My charge was to find the best coach that was out there, and that’s what we went to work to do,” Fulmer said, asked if it was difficult for him to hire a coach from Alabama, a school that was once his fiercest his rival.
Pruitt said that growing up just south of the Tennessee River in tiny Rainsville, Ala. — pop. 5,015 — he learned all about the Vols’ football tradition.
“You grow up knowing all about the University of Tennessee, running through the Power T, Smokey, the great teams that Coach (Robert) Neyland, Coach (Doug) Dickey, Coach (Johnny) Majors and Coach Fulmer put on the field,” Pruitt said. “T here was a time and place that this university was feared among the SEC teams.
“My goal as the head football coach at the University of Tennessee is to get us back to that point.”
First things first, Pruitt has to help Alabama capitalize on its College Football Playoff appearance, as he will carry out his duties as the Tide’s defensive coordinator throughout its playoff run.
Pruitt, who has a 6-year contract worth $3.8 million annually, met with his new Tennessee team earlier Thursday. Pruitt challenged the Vols players to raise their grades, and he said their biggest competition in the immediate future is themselves.
“Right now we want to get ready to dominate our opponent every day,” Pruitt said. “Our guys need to look in the mirror, because that’s our opponent right now.”
Tennessee chancellor Beverly Davenport, who in in her first year has seen two head coaches and two athletic directors, made the expectations for Pruitt quite clear.
“Make no bones about it, ( Pruitt) told me he wanted to win championships,” Davenport said, “and I told him, make no bones about it, Tennessee expects you to.”
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